WASHINGTON ― For those who held out hope that the title of commander in chief would transform Donald Trump into a serious student of foreign policy, Wednesday’s Rose Garden news conference must have been sobering.
Forced to confront several global crises, Trump instead blamed others for the world’s problems and assured his audience only that he had secret plans. His responses varied between campaign boilerplate and train-of-thought ruminations. And it all suggested that this president still has little understanding of the most consequential part of his new job.
Take, for example, the main news from the event: Trump’s admission that he is now rethinking his position on the Syrian civil war after seeing photos of the victims of a chemical weapons attack allegedly conducted by President Bashar Assad. “I like to think of myself as a very flexible person. I don’t have to have one specific way, and if the world changes, I go the same way. I don’t change ― well, I do change. And I am flexible,” Trump said. “What happened yesterday is unacceptable to me.”
The Assad regime has been accused of carrying out chemical weapons attacks for years ― as recently as last week. This is something that an individual with access to daily intelligence briefings should know.
The most generous explanation is that Trump is, indeed, just now looking at these types of photos and is finally adjusting to the realities of governing. But on Wednesday, he continued to act as if the buck didn’t stop with him. He argued that former President Barack Obama’s decision not to bomb Assad in 2013 as punishment for crossing a self-imposed “red line” on the use of chemical weapons precipitated the current crisis. (Trump, in 2013, urged Obama against attacking the Assad regime, and mocked him for backing himself into a corner by declaring a red line.)
“The world is a mess. I inherited a mess,” Trump stressed Wednesday.
When a reporter pushed Trump to look forward on Syria, he did finally acknowledge that he had “responsibility” and “carr[ied] it very proudly.” But what that responsibility entailed was left entirely unclear. Trump raised the possibility of military retaliation against the Assad regime.
“It crossed a lot of lines for me,” he said of the attack. “When you kill innocent children, innocent babies, babies, little babies, with a chemical gas that is so lethal, people were shocked to hear what gas it was, that crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line, many, many lines.”
But as soon as he put retaliation on the table, he muddied the waters, failing to explain what the consequences would be for crossing these “many, many lines.” Instead, he presented an excuse cribbed from his campaign rhetoric: that he doesn’t like to reveal what he plans to do.
“Well, one of the things I think you’ve noticed about me is, militarily, I don’t like to say where I’m going and what I’m doing,” Trump said.
Perhaps Trump does believe in strategic vagueness; in keeping allies and foes alike guessing at what U.S. policy will be. But the more likely explanation is that he is hiding the absence of a plan. And that may be because Trump’s foreign policy, much like that Wednesday press availability, is hopelessly conflicted and disjointed. Under his world vision, America must be strong but not engaged, firm but not predictable, a force for stability but not propping up alliances, compassionate but with less concern for civilian casualties and the money spent on humanitarian aid.
Syria is focal point of these contradictions. If Trump does attack the Assad regime, it inevitably will be seen as an attack against Russian President Vladimir Putin as well ― one of several reasons Obama was reluctant to intervene. Trump, who favors closer relations with Putin, has long opposed aggressive action against the Assad regime, which has managed to remain in power in large part because of support from Moscow.
On Wednesday, the president argued that his newfound position was a result of his pragmatism rather than ignorance. But it is clear that the administration has yet to arrive at a comprehensive approach toward Syria. While Trump avoided criticizing Putin’s support to Assad, his U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson both issued forceful denunciations of Moscow’s role in the conflict. And while Trump may have talked tough on Assad Wednesday, just days earlier Haley and Tillerson both said the U.S. would not focus on his ouster.
Trump’s theory during the campaign seemed to be that simple and decisive actions would solve conflicts, that adversaries wouldn’t dare mess with America if the president simply acted tough, and that uttering the words “radical Islam” would somehow be a panacea to the mess in the Middle East. What he’s discovered ― as he did with health care policy ― is that the world, especially Syria, is “complicated”; that actions often have adverse reactions; and that policy is difficult to craft and harder to execute.
Those complications become even harder to overcome when the commander in chief appears to lack a basic understanding of players in the region.
When Trump was asked on Wednesday whether he would target Iranian and Hezbollah forces who are fighting alongside Assad against both Syrian rebels and the Islamic State, he meandered through an unrelated tirade in which he bashed the Iran nuclear deal worked out by the Obama administration. It was, he said “one of the worst deals,” which he was enforcing nonetheless.
When he finished, the reporter reminded him that her question was about Iranian and Hezbollah forces fighting alongside Assad. “What message do you have for them?”
“You will see. They will have a message. You will see what the message will be, OK? Thank you. Thank you all very much. Thank you,” the president answered before ending the press conference.